Does Joker Belong in a Mental Hospital?
A new film returns us to a familiar comic book asylum.
Posted Nov 08, 2019
There is a scene in Joker in which Joaquin Phoenix’s titular character is shown in flashback slamming his head against the wall of an asylum cell. We gather that the experience was not helpful. For most of the movie, Joker suffers. He gets fired, he faces off with an ineffective social worker, he loses his access to medications, and ultimately, he commits atrocious acts of violence.
There are other asylum scenes as well. Joker goes to the Arkham State Hospital to retrieve his mother’s records. The hospital is a neglected brick building that warehouses the disturbed, with long yellow corridors, caged doors, and an overworked staff. Another flashback lets us in on his mother’s miserable experiences here, and we even glimpse the word “lobotomy” in her course of treatments.
Arkham is a standard in the Batman universe. Interestingly, it began its journey in the fiction of weird horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. First described in his short 1937 story “The Thing on the Doorstep,” Arkham Sanitarium is a place where a man possessed by his diabolical wife gets locked away. He is eventually killed by his friend in an act of retribution.
Lovecraft himself grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, about a mile and a half away from the Butler Hospital for the Insane. Though he never entered its buildings, he knew Butler well—both of his parents died there. His view of the asylum as a place of horrors was undoubtedly colored by his grim family history. Lovecraft’s fiction, which often includes references to asylums or even takes place in them, explicitly makes connections between incarcerated insanity, monstrosity, and degeneracy.
In 1974, Jack C. Harris, a future DC Comics editor, proposed the idea of an “Arkham Asylum” in the world of Batman to writer Denny O’Neil. Harris recalled, “what better asylum could there be for such maniacs than Arkham, the dark dwelling of tormented souls from Lovecraft’s horrific tales?” In 1986, the breakout success of Frank Miller’s graphic novel Batman: The Dark Knight Returns delivered Arkham to its biggest audience yet. In this work, Joker is confined to Arkham in a catatonic state. He is not cured.
Arkham Asylum first appeared on the big screen in Batman Forever (1995). The Riddler (Jim Carrey) loses his mind after getting blasted by his own mind control device and winds up in a strait jacket here. The film shows us a big and gloomy mansion, introduced on a rainy night, looming behind an ornate iron gate. In Batman & Robin (1997), Arkham is reimagined as a castle, tall and geometrical, sitting an isolated rock across a bridged chasm. In Batman Begins (2005), Arkham is the home of an evil psychiatrist called The Scarecrow. Scarecrow tests hallucinogenic drugs on his own patients, with the aim of unleashing them into the water supply of Gotham City.
In Joker, Arkham is no longer a gothic manse. It is now “Arkham State Hospital,” an underfunded, sad place in which people suffering mental illness are mistreated, abandoned, and later released to fend for themselves on the streets. Phoenix’s character is an illustration of the forsaken mentally disturbed, the underclass who find succor in neither counseling nor drugs. Joker’s violence appears to result directly from a failing social safety net.
As others have already noted, Joker delivers problematic stereotypes about sufferers of mental illness. Joker is “sick” and hence prone to horrific acts of violence stereotypical of “crazy” people. As Annabel Driscoll and Mina Husain note, “the psychopathology Arthur inhabits is foggy at best…This diagnostic vagueness may create a more relatable character that reflects the pain of any psychiatric illness; but it gives the impression that many disorders have been squashed into a plot device.”
In its long history, Arkham has always been a plot device. It has served to propel stories of terror, the supernatural, and, in Batman’s case, becomes a warehouse base of operations for various villains. A fictional character of dubious psychiatric realism, Joker belongs here. Arkham, after all, is a haunted house built for our entertainment; we just need to remember that there are real hospitals serving real people facing real problems in the real world. Hollywood has yet to come to terms with this place.
Driscoll and Husain, "Why Joker's depiction of mental illness is dangerously misinformed." The Guardian, October 21, 2019.
Lovecraft, “The Thing on the Doorstep” (1937). In Klinger, The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft (2014). New York: Norton.
Voger (2006). The Dark Age: Grim, Great, and Gimmicky Postmodern Comics. Raleigh, NC: TwoMorrows Publishing.